In a normal year, Steve Hoffman's staff at Brightpoint, the region's community development agency, would be hard at work helping struggling northeast Indiana families sign up for funding assistance to help them keep the lights on and the heat flowing as winter sets in.
However, 2020 has been anything but normal.
The Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor reached out recently to remind Indiana residents to sign up for the federal Energy Assistance Program. Sign-up is required to qualify for the Indiana Utility Disconnection Moratorium, as set by state law, which runs from Dec. 1 to March 15, 2021. The moratorium, which prevents utility companies from shutting off utility service to residents who cannot or will not pay their utility bills, only applies to low-income residents who are eligible for the Energy Assistance Program.
But making the program work efficiently is far more difficult than it sounds. When northeast Indiana residents who need help qualify for services, they receive roughly $300 toward their winter gas and electric bills, which is paid directly to the companies, and they're protected from disconnection until March. Hoffman acknowledged that the moratorium protects vulnerable residents from harm and added that Brightpoint encourages recipients to pay as much of what's left of their bills as they can until March, but many can't afford it.
“Here's the big problem with the moratorium,” Hoffman said. “On March 15, they've got a huge bill left because they haven't been paying on it for whatever reason. There are people who think we shouldn't have a moratorium, and I may be one of them. I think it actually does more harm than good. All the people who face disconnection on March 15 don't love it, either.”
Hoffman said utility companies offer all kinds of payment plans and other services to help customers pay down their bills, but by March 15, they'll be too far behind to avoid disconnection if they haven't paid at least something. That leaves them in the hole all over again.
The suffering caused by COVID-19 adds to the burden. Hoffman said Brightpoint received roughly $2 million in coronavirus relief funds last spring to help residents reeling from job and income losses, illness, medical bills, loss of housing and other hardships, but much of that money has already been spent to provide as much relief as possible, and there's no more relief in sight.
“We try to figure out all of the things people qualify for to connect them,” he said. “We may be able to help with other COVID funds that we have, but there's lots of demand out there. We're just overwhelmed by the number of clients we have right now.”
He said agencies that provide COVID-19 assistance are cautiously optimistic that more federal assistance may be on the way in the first quarter of 2021.
Hoffman said the COVID-19 upsurge forced the understaffed agency to close the office at 227 E. Washington Blvd. to the public on Wednesday, though staff are working there, and meeting with clients by phone, text or email.
“It's rough out there,” he added. “It really is. We're trying to do what we normally do while trying to deal with people who are dealing with COVID. Like I tell my staff: We can only do what we can do.”
As Hoosier citizens, policymakers and lawmakers begin to take stock of 2020 and the “new normal” that COVID-19 has wrought, they might want to consider how a program designed to help low-income people weather the winter can create more problems than it solves. A fix would help.